15 June 2007

Please and 'Kss

New Yorkers have a strange relationship with the magic words.

Ever let someone go ahead of you into the subway car? Or held open a door for a stranger? Then, right after, you hear this strange, brief hissing sound, like the air being let out of a balloon? That was your fellow New Yorker saying "Thank you." But they say it so softly, under their breath and out of the corner of their mouth, you only get the final consonants. Its sounds something like "'kss."

Is it embarrassment? Shyness? Vocal laziness? Resentment at a random act of kindness? Why can't New Yorkers offer up a full-throated, easily heard "Thank you." "'Kss," "'Kss," "'Kss." Some days, it's like you're surrounded by a bunch of timid, mealy-mouthed garter snakes. It's a similar situation with "Excuse Me," an expression polite New Yorker must use dozens of times a day on the sidewalk and in the subways. But what you're hear is "'Scs 'm'," with the "m" (standing for "me") very faint at the end.

There is one area of life where Gothamites come out with a recognizable "Thank you": at the deli counter, where they're picking up their coffee or egg sandwich or whatever. But here, again, it's a exercise in embarrassed confusion. The counterman will hand over the purchase with a "Thank you," and the customer will response, parrot-like, with an identical "Thank you," as if they have to match the deli man in politeness and gratitude. No one says "You're welcome." The counterman can't say it; it's his job to say "Thank you"—thank you for shopping here. We're supposed to say "You're Welcome."

But "You're welcome" is almost never heard in New York. People don't know what to do with it. Maybe they view it as unnecessary, a time-waster. Or perhaps people think it sounds a bit "high hat," as if of course the deli owner should be thankful for our patronage, and the "You're welcome" sets up some kind of momentary class structure (whereas the two "Thanks you"s make us equals).

I try to say "Thank you," "Excuse me" and "You're welcom" clearly as often as I can. People ten to shoot me a look when I do though. I think they think I'm an out-of-towner. Or perhaps being sarcastic.


Anonymous said...

i always thought the exchange was more like "thanks (for shopping here)" to which i retort "thanks (for making my food/ringing me up at the register)". it seems awkward to me to reply "you're welcome" as a customer.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Exactly, J$. You find it awkward to say "You're welcome," though it's been a natural reply to "Thank you" for ages. Lots of "Thank You"s are all to the good, of course. By I find it odd to say thanks to someone for handing over food or groceries that I've just paid for. Of course they're going to hand it over. It's not a gift.